Now the party’s over
I’m so tired
Then I see you coming
Out of nowhere
(Roxy Music, “Avalon”)
Tell me where are you driving
Where is your bounty
Of fortune and fame
I am another
Drive me to Harlem
Or somewhere the same
(Steely Dan, “Midnight Cruiser”)
Just because you paid for the whole bow doesn’t mean you have to use it. (Advice to violinists)
wallflower: This is my favorite Pynchon novel (which places it close to the top of my favorite novels, all-time) for several reasons. We’ll get into all of them, but start with this: Vineland has the same place in the Pynchon canon as the first season of Twin Peaks has in David Lynch’s. It’s his most disciplined work, without ever giving up on his unparalleled imagination. Just as that first season of Twin Peaks is about the death of Laura Palmer and the reverberating fallout throughout the town, Vineland is about one thing: in 1984, the Prosecutor, Brock Vond, restarts his pursuit of his old lover, Frenesi Gates. From start to finish, everything that happens is either consequence of or backstory to that. Lot 49 and Inherent Vice (which has the same relation to Vineland as Collateral does to Heat, one more story spun off a larger universe) have a similar focus but don’t travel as far as this one. Pynchon has always been a madly inventive writer but here he allies it with a sense of control that’s entirely new, and almost unique in his work.
In a novel that’s so much about the strength we draw from the past, and especially from family, it makes sense that Pynchon discovered the power of convention here. Gravity’s Rainbow, as we talked about, overturns so much–everything from politics and sexuality to how reality gets turned into words. Vineland is something old for everyone else but new for Pynchon: a story taking place with clearly drawn characters in a definite reality. If his technique in GR was, as you said, to throw in absolutely everything he could think of, here he picks and chooses, letting us see the facets of what happened and who these people are. He’s both patient and economical: it takes some forty pages before the Vond/Gates story becomes clear, but nothing feels stalled, and there isn’t a passage or description that goes on too long. Oh, and this is also constantly and unforgettably funny. (It’s been over a quarter-century since I’ve read this and I still sing the Hawaii Five-O theme as “Down in the streets of Honolu-lu/Just bookin’ folks and being patched through, what a/Lu-wow! Hawa-/Ii Five-O!”) It’s Pynchon’s Arrested Development–the first three seasons, anyway.
Before I go more into this, let’s get your reactions on record. What did you think of this? And what kind of irresponsible speculation would you like to make about the 17 years between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland? (Dear Thomas, if you have a problem with this, you can fucking well tell us we’re wrong. Contact The Solute using the form provided.)
Avathoir: I wasn’t looking forward to talking about this novel for several reasons, and reading the first line above made me go “oh fuck” out loud. This is not because I think the novel is BAD. It’s definitely not the worse thing Pynchon has written, or the most annoying, or the most perverse (in every sense of the word), but it is not his best for me, and I don’t think it’ll be anywhere close to my favorite by the end of this. In fact, I think for me this might be the biggest betrayal I’ve felt from an author. I felt let down, although not for the same reasons Harold Bloom (who is wrong about this book) feels. I’ll be honest: I think he came close to genius with this and he blew it.
Now, I’m going to do that irresponsible speculation, and I would like you to follow up on this with your own thoughts as an addendum, or perhaps a blow of vengeance against me. To be honest, I think this book originates back in the days after V. when Pynchon claimed he was going to write three novels at once. We know that The Crying of Lot 49 was not one of them, but I think it’s reasonably fair to say that Gravity’s Rainbow was one, and if I may be in fact totally spitballing, I think it’s fair to guess based the other two installments were meant to be Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, if only because they’re all historical novel doorstoppers.
We also know for a fact that after Rainbow was finished that rumors existed at least about M&D, and perhaps Day. 17 years of waiting (In the former it turned out to be almost 25), and then…this comes out. A 380 page book set primarily in one state in the recent past and about hippies and radicals, more or less. I can’t imagine what it must have been like when this came out: people must have been thinking he was going to write something that could perhaps become a new bible or something, and then you get a book which, as we’ve established, is very focused. Bloom DESPISES this book and will take any chance to say so, and generally people treat this book as an embarrassment meant to be forgotten.
Which is not a fate I think it deserves: as I’ve said before, I think Pynchon blew it but it’s not an embarrassment at all. It’s more of a Devastating Failure, in that I feel like he came very close to something great and unique and important, but failed to ultimately execute what he realized into the story. Fundamentally, this is a book that ends where it should really begin.
We’ve talked a lot about how Pynchon thinks in terms of conspiracies, institutions, and systems, with Gravity’s Rainbow and the story of Byron the Bulb being perhaps the apex of this. He knew he couldn’t do anything else, but at the same time Pynchon was settling down, I feel like. He’d fallen in love, he had a kid on the way, and he fundamentally realized something: the world can be a mess, falling down on your head, run by idiots, and all part of a giant machine that doesn’t really work…but that does not really have anything to do with you all of the time. Even in the chaos, especially (as with many of the characters in this book if they really put their minds to it) the Man does not necessarily have to affect you. You can live a life of value without having to live a life ruled by ideology (it’s safe to say that the characters ruled the most by ideology in this book are by far the unhappiest, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum) and that fundamentally life is about well…keeping your family together and being happy with them.
This is the realization that Pynchon had, the same one Mr. Finch has when he takes the LSD in V. for Vendetta, or, if you will, the one Dennis Reynolds has when he realizes getting mad at his friends for playing video games is stupid. It’s a profound realization: a lot of people never figure it out, and there have been countless families broken apart not by a difference in values, but a difference in ideology, and politics, and people don’t realize that for all your posturing, it is possible to live a life of value without thinking everyone’s out to get you and that you’re always a victim of the System (I threw it on the GROUND!).
But…he doesn’t do it. Pynchon had this realization, incorporated it into his book as subtext, and then did nothing else with it. The characters, from the Wheelers to Frenesi to Brock to DL to everyone in the book, go through motions of a play they don’t really want to do, the same shenanigans that people in the previous three novels lived for and which were hilarious come off to me as tired people who are distinctly unsatisfied doing the same thing over and over, no different from the squares and alleged fascists (not the actual fascists, of which there are at least one) they claim to stand against. It’s even worse because in a way the book begins like this, with Zoyd waking up and realizing he has to do his annual charade again. This stuff is gold, the whole deconstruction of wackiness as Zoyd realizes he doesn’t like what he does and everyone acts like his schtick is, well…his shtick. I was thrilled to see how Pynchon was going to handle this, but then Vond came and Zoyd took his bait, sending Prairie on her adventure quest with a bunch of ninjas who aren’t ninjas at all but who have instead become something of a cultural appropriation self-help clinic (I can’t believe Pynchon predicted the 90s political correctness movement and satirized separatist movements/the dawn of Asian medicine in America/California yuppiness/race fetishism ALL AT THE SAME TIME) and radical filmmakers that today would have probably made Jackass all doing stuff they can’t really keep track of and don’t seem all that excited to do in the first place. It isn’t until the government literally gets too bored with the whole thing and Prairie is allowed to go home that we’re given the same moral that I’ve spent a few hundred words describing, even though it was all in front of our faces the whole time: what’s the point? I worry that I’ve missed something, wanting the book to begin with the realization that as important as a lot of the ideals may have been to the characters, it’s not what they need in their life right now, or maybe ever again, and trying to reconcile that change in what has happened would have made for a much more interesting story, an elegy and an epilogue in full length novel form.
Well, now that I’ve horrified you, how would you like to respond?
wallflower: Goodness, why would I be horrified at the chance to make myself clearer? Honestly, I don’t think you’ve misread this novel at all; it’s just the classic case that what you don’t like is what I do like. You’re right that in structure, this is essentially epilogue. The story happened in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and all the characters are now living with the consequences: “Sent so gaga by those mythical days of high drama that he’d forgotten he and Prairie might actually have to go on living years beyond them.” In the present action, no one really affects anything except for Vond, and at the end of the book, he doesn’t–it’s a deus ex Reagan finale. This is a novel, not a drama, about a bunch of people who tried to change the world, failed, and then came to live in it, and the virtues here aren’t those of drama, of action–”the ability to initiate change,” as Christopher Lasch sez–but acceptance and persistence.
Pynchon isn’t much for linear writing (duh, look at the title of this series) and structurally, Vineland doesn’t operate by rules of story but of memory, “the thousand bloody arroyos in the hinterlands of time that stretched somberly inland from the honky-tonk coast of Now.” Here’s another reason this is my fave Pynchon: he has never, before or since, been so elegant about the way he shifts between past and present, between one place and time and another. V. was broken into distinct movements, GR jumped almost randomly between scenes, but Vineland uses the conventions of characters and scenes–people remember, tell backstory, or see things–to shift between moments in a way that feels as natural as thought.
Late in the novel, not only does J. S. Bach get name-checked, but so does the “ever-questionable trading company of Tokkata & Fuji” and that’s a clue to what Pynchon does here. Vineland isn’t a story but a massive fugue. Beginning with Zoyd in the present day, Pynchon introduces characters and histories like themes, one after the other–Prairie, Hector, Frenesi, Takeshi, DL, Brock Vond–and then begins shifting between them, and each time someone comes back, past or present, they’ve picked up more meaning from not just their histories but everyone else’s. One of the ways the fugal structure works is that almost every major character gets a moment with another one; even the minor characters get a lot of fun and interesting meetings. (You’re right that it does leave us wanting more; I really want to know how things go for Isaiah Two Four and the band working at Ralph Wayvone Jr.’s Cucumber Lounge.) Another aspect of a fugue, maybe the most important: the way you switch between themes, letting one switch into another almost without noticing. Pynchon’s skill here is like Bach’s or The Shield’s, in that it’s invisible and necessarily so, going from Prairie watching Frenesi’s movies in 1984 to the meet-ugly between Frenesi and Vond circa 1970 to Frenesi watching the movie with the 24fps film collective, or having a single business card trip an entire chapter’s worth of story and introduce a new character. Glenn Gould once said “fugue is not a form at all but a texture,” and that’s what Vineland gave me: the texture of memory, the way the past keeps coming up into the present and the way the present keeps recontextualizing and remaking the past.
In a good fugue, all the themes come back at the end and work with each other for the finale, and the final chapter (sixty pages, almost a sixth of the whole) of Vineland remains the best of Pynchon. The present action, the final action of the book, is the Traverse-Becker family reunion and picnic. Even as he keeps switching between scenes, everyone comes back, everyone gets a resolution if not an ending, even if they’ve been dead for a while. I like your comment that the book “begins where it should end” because the book also ends where it begins: with Jess Traverse and Eula Becker, who, sure, probably both died decades ago but are still there, at the head of the table, still giving their blessing to all their children:
. . .where Jess and Eula sat together, each year smaller and more transparent, waiting for Jess’s annual reading of a passage from Emerson he’d found and memorized years ago, quoted in a jailhouse copy of The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. Frail as the fog of Vineland, in his carrying, pure voice, Jess reminded them, “‘Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil.’” He had a way of delivering it that always got them going, and Eula wouldn’t take her eyes off him.
This is the change and moral heart of Vineland: People fuck up. Ideologies can be poison (you’re dead-on about that, and it’s going to be a problem for Pynchon himself in future novels). Systems are too big and pervasive to ever be beaten. Families, though–families endure, and having covered three generations of them here (Sasha, Frenesi, Prairie) Pynchon will go and write up Jess Traverse and the two generations before him in Against the Day. (If you’re right about the three-novels-at-once thing, Vineland might have been an offshoot of that.) If there’s change, it doesn’t happen on the scale of our lives, but across generations, and we persist through that and hold on to the families we love; the last word of Vineland is “home.”
Vineland has a unique position in the Pynchonography. Almost every other one of his novels was set at a moment of great historical change–World War 2, the middle of the 1960s, 9/11, the onset of modernity, the run-up to the American Revolution–and every one of them tries to capture that feeling, that a new world was changing the reality of the old. Vineland (and to some extent Inherent Vice) is about the moment when the world was going to change, and didn’t, and what it means to go on living in the world. In his other novels, his characters are trying to hold on as the world transforms all around them; here, they’re trying to accept that the world isn’t going to make things that easy for them.
I hope that gives you a sense of what I find valuable here. Again, nothing of what you said is wrong (and I knew almost nothing of the rumors about the writing, nor about Bloom. Fuck him) and one of your good points is that the characters don’t really change. (Of course, some of them are dead, so it’s a bit late for that.) Although the characters may be static, I do find them compelling. What did you think of them?
Avathoir: I really wish I read the book you read, now that you’ve described it so elegantly. As it stands, I don’t think that what you’ve described really works because of its constant shifts into the past. I get what he’s doing, I really do, but I think it undermines his case. The constant shifting into the past doesn’t accumulate history as much as I think it makes the history interchangeable from the present: you could rewrite the whole book by changing it into present tense and I honestly don’t think the effect would change much. The biggest offender for this I feel like is DL, who is a character I wanted to love (former radical who basically realizes that she’s been fucking up her whole life and finds a life out of seemingly her biggest fuckup) but the fact that her introduction is like 75 pages of her hating Brock and then helping Prairie doesn’t feel like she’s changed. It just feels like the extension of the same. Likewise, there’s Sasha and Frenesi, who seem to be in some cases Pynchon evoking Manic Pixie Dream Girl at his worst, being these people who are just like butterflies, except the pollen is either sex with the far right or the far left. I mean, to be fair Pynchon almost never writes women well, but Prairie herself is so much better defined compared to previous generations of women in her family that it feels like his obsession with the past is something he’s hiding in, like he doesn’t want to leave yet.
Again, I think this is an approach for me wanting a different book then I was expecting and eventually got, but there’s this sense I get with this book like it really was Pynchon trying something new but still developing it. There’s a lot of things he gets into especially genre stuff that no longer becomes a question of “is it real” but “it IS real, and it’s HAPPENING”. I mean…the ninja stuff would just be paranoia in an earlier work, but here it’s actually a huge part of the plot (though like I said before I think Pynchon made a huge mistake not making asian woman the head of that and it becoming almost a sort of collective united by something they’ve taken away from somebody else), and I think that magic realism (or perhaps the thing that separates the real from the unreal has been removed) fits him like a glove. I know we’re going to see more of this in at least one other book, but I want to ask you about some of the other shifts we’ve seen in this second act, whether it be genre or what is real or whether or not Pynchon decided to get into the stuff The Kids were into. Does he wear the hat well or come off like Steve Buscemi?
wallflower: I think it works, all of it; I’ll start with the magic realism and work back to the characters, because they’re all of a piece here. Two years before the publication of Vineland, Pynchon published a review of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera called “The Heart’s Eternal Vow.” He liked it, a lot, and you can see harbingers of Vineland in the review: “maniacal serenity,” “straight-faced teller of tall tales,” even “this astonishing final chapter, symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo” all describe Pynchon’s novel pretty well too. Pynchon has always been a magical realist, but he’s never before played the two parts of that as evenly as he does here. Part of what made Gravity’s Rainbow so singular was how it kept sliding between the poles of magic and realism, but in Vineland everything happens on the same plane of probability–it took me a long time to realize that the Thanatoids were actually dead people.
The setting has a lot to do with that success. Having been around that particular patch of Northern California, where as Sasha sez, “half the interior hasn’t even been surveyed,” I can attest that it’s the kind of place that if there were a community of ghosts hanging around with their own radio station, annual Roast, and run-ins with “legally ambiguous” towing companies, that’s where it would happen. It reminded me a lot of the desert of Welcome to Night Vale–another kind of place I’m familiar with, and where the reality/magic line is just as blurry. Pynchon writes about the people living (wrong word) on that border, in a place that’s somewhat uncolonized but not undamaged by modernity. The title, by the way, works perfectly for that, the land of Norse myth that was America before we got to it and fucked it up into “the scabland garrison state the green free America of their childhood was already turning into.”
That magic-realist feel helps the genre material; this is a world where there’s a much greater range of things that can happen, and those things include material that’s straight from Japanese Yakuza movies. (He’s clearly ripping off the same sources as Tarantino: I can’t see anyone except Uma Thurman when I imagine DL.) Pynchon was a cultural appropriator long before cultural appropriation was uncool; there is nothing, from Yurok legend to Godzilla, that this guy won’t steal and use for his own purposes. (“Could Willy Sutton rob a safe?” as he sez in Slow Learner.) What makes it work is the obvious love he has for these myths, ancient and modern, and the detail with which he uses them; anyone can bring Godzilla in for a guest shot, but here we get an analysis of the footprint and also some people who disguise a helicopter as a giant foot just to freak everyone out. It’s the opposite of the kind of thing that Ernest Cline (to name the most recent offender) does–Pynchon doesn’t say “hey, here’s that thing you know!” because a) he does so much more than just mention them and b) more likely than not, I didn’t know them. I suppose he should have a T-shirt that says “I appropriate other cultures on a deeper level than you.”
The thoroughness with which he renders this world makes the characters work–because they’re moving through a complex world, they come off as complex people. What you said about Sasha, Frenesi, and DL points to something crucial about all the characters here: they’re all broken, they all contain within themselves the thing that will bring them down. Even Prairie, the most hopeful of the characters (her name evoking the unspoiled America, more on this next novel), ends the novel not abducted by Brock Vond but with some part of her wishing he’d come back. This is an idea that Pynchon’s treated before, but never so thoroughly or sympathetically. There’s a passage about this that’s been something of a mantra for me ever since I read it:
“Sure,” he told her, “this is for all the rest of us down here with the insects, the ones who don’t quite get to make warrior, who with two tenths of a second to decide fail to get it right and live with it for the rest of our lives–it’s for us drunks, and sneaks, and people who can’t feel enough to kill if they have to. . .this is our equalizer, our edge–all we have to share. Because we have ancestors and descendants too–our generations. . .our traditions.”
He’s come close to saying exactly that in V. (“I come from a long line of schlemiels. Job was my ancestor”) and Gravity’s Rainbow (everything about the Preterite) but he nailed it here, finding what Don deLillo called “the moral force in a sentence when it comes out right.” This is another mission statement for Vineland, because it’s all about having to live in a broken world with a broken self.
The calling out of Emerson, Inshoro Sensei’s techniques, the way everyone is broken, the stories of both the hippies of the 1960s and the labor struggles of 1940s Hollywood and way before that in other places, all these things point to the common thread of these characters, and it’s something deeply American: these characters are all Beautiful Losers, and Pynchon never loses focus of either term. In its history, America commits so much to the credo A Nation of Winners (and perhaps the ugliest Winner imaginable now stands as President) but there’s also the countersubject (fugue pun. BOOM!) that allows us to value the people who lose but still hold on to an essential goodness. Pynchon gets, in a way he hadn’t before, that you can’t win (about the 1960s, Hector asks Zoyd “Who was saved?”) but if you keep loving, keep your own virtue against everything, including your own fucked-upedness, you don’t need to win. If you’re part of a family, part of history, part of memory, you’ve done all you can do. There’s a sympathy towards the characters here that extends out to us.
More than anything, that’s why I love Vineland: I love these characters and I think Pynchon does too. The moments between Prairie and Zoyd (“she felt some unaccustomed bloom of tenderness for this scroungy, usually slow-witted fringe element she’d been assigned, on this planet, for a father”) are straightforward, believable, and touching, never more so than when they’re talking about Frenesi. Pynchon also neatly describes the social ecosystem (including the economy) of Vineland with host of minor characters–and that also allows him his usual quota of great names and digressions. (Why is there not a Northern California restaurant called Humbolaya?) The Zoyd/Hector relationship has a good feel of friendly antagonism that he’ll replicate for Doc/Bigfoot in Inherent Vice. Flash, Frenesi’s second husband, is both funny and believable, an unashamed snitch following the motto of “Whine or Lose.” We also get, in the Pynchon tradition that all his fiction takes place in one universe, the return of Mucho Maas from Lot 49, now (or rather, then) a record producer in San Francisco. (Takeshi also appeared, briefly, in Gravity’s Rainbow.) Again, there are no heroes here–DL comes the closest and misses–and Pynchon doesn’t play that as characters victimized by a conspiracy but simply as who we are, and maybe who he is. Sometimes this feels like a more sympathetic version of Joan Didion; her first novel, Run River, was also a work mostly about memory set in Northern California, and her 1970s and 1980s books like Democracy dealt with the same kind of government scheming that forms the action of Vineland.
Speaking of which, a shout-out to Brock Vond, my favorite villain in all of fiction. I would love to to see a jurisdictional clash between Vond and Ed Exley, but the real James Ellroy connection is through Kemper Boyd. Boyd was Jack Kennedy without the Kennedys, charming, ambitious, amoral; Vond is Bobby without the legend, the man in a long line of union busters, ruthless, able to see a little farther than anyone else. He’s named the Prosecutor and Pynchon gives him some explicit comparisons to Bobby. He’s a great malevolent force, haunting the novel before we actually meet him, even the people who are supposed to be on his side. (Hector’s distaste for Vond is one of the great little touches here; Hector has loyalties and principles beyond himself.) Pynchon makes him both comic and demonic at once; his repeated verbal tic of “hm?” comes across as annoying to others and it gives his speech a not-quite-human rhythm. (Pynchon, as ever, renders speaking patterns into print better than just about anyone.) Pynchon does something difficult here: he makes Vond’s internal life clear without making his external actions any less horrifying. What makes him part of this novel and elevates him to legendary status is that Vond is just as broken as anyone else. Haunted by dreams of “forced procreation,” almost self-destructing from laughter that won’t stop, he’s the “worst kind of self-obsessed collegiate dickhead, projected on to adult format,” the kind of bully who has to dominate everything around him out of permanent fear, and who’s getting used by everyone above him even as he abuses everyone below. (For a contemporary example, think of a much smarter version of Jared Kushner.) He can’t be defeated by anything in this world, but sometimes another world–in Washington, or in the land of the dead–and decides to have its way with him. His fate is just perfect, disappearing into another realm like Tyrone Slothrop or Ned Merrill in The Swimmer (“Brock had been vague over the phone about how he’d started off in a helicopter and ended up in a car”) and his final word is “Please.” [Author’s note: I started watching Big Little Lies two days before this published and now I want no one but Alexander Skarsgård to play Vond.]
Coming back to that review, and by way of handing this off to you for a finish, Pynchon sez that García Márquez “with a lifetime’s experience steers us unerringly among hazards of skepticism and mercy, on this river we all know, without whose navigation there is no love and against whose flow the effort to return is never worth a less honorable name than remembrance.” He also sez in the novel “what was a Thanatoid, at the end of the long dread day, but memory?” There’s a compelling enough story here that Pynchon could have told it linearly, and all his books from here on out are almost completely linear. (Against the Day is linear but parallel, just not all the lines move at the same speed.) Still, I think the structure of memory here was necessary. In one unique and indelible moment, Pynchon jumps out of the usual time-shifting structure to give us not the present but an imaginary present:
Neither one would know how few and fortunate would be any who’d be able to meet in years later than these and smile, and relax between some single low oak out on an impossible hillside, with sunlight, and the voices of children.
(It’s impossible now to read that and not think it was written straight at Richard Fariña.) This is a book about living with the past, not just your own past but the historical past, and what it’s like to live with that memory. Your experience reading this was like my experience watching Hannibal–what we didn’t like about them can’t be changed without abandoning the author’s vision.
Avathoir: Hannibal is a great but flawed show, so I suppose this is a great and flawed novel for much the same way. You’re interested in the memory, in the accumulation of the details, while I much prefer the haunting, the idea of that whole Faulkner cliche about the past being the present. The problem is though, that that’s both true and not: we exist in all times and simultaneously only in one time, and it’s the now that I feel like Pynchon has lost. He entered a lot of brave new territory for him with this book, and while I appreciate it, there’s still a hesitancy, an idea that the ghosts are still alive rather than dead, which I think made him take the approach he did and ultimately makes the novel poorer for it. This is an important book and one I would like to try again, but one I may not be able to reconcile my differences with, in addition to one I should pay much closer attention to.
Now we have to read or reread over 1700 pages for the next two installments, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day. By way of a break, we’ll start a new feature (it was Avathoir’s idea) here soon. Watch for it!